This is the third instalment in the monthly series Beyond the Plate, looking at the motivations and passions of local chefs. This week: John Winter Russell of Candide.
I am drawn to metaphors, specifically the juicy ones filled with valuable life lessons.
Likening chef John Winter Russell’s life — toiling in hot and tempestuous kitchens — to Voltaire’s Candide might help explain Russell’s choice of name for his restaurant, Candide (551 St-Martin St. in Little Burgundy), and hints at his similarities to the author’s struggling protagonist.
The title character in the 1759 novel perseveres despite countless obstacles and learns valuable lessons. Voltaire concludes his book with Candide stating: “We must cultivate our garden.” And this is where I begin our exploration into Russell’s world.
Russell was born in Etobicoke, Ont., in 1987. At the age of six, his family moved to Peterborough, where he spent his formative years. The eldest of three siblings, Russell recalls: “I grew up thinking I was going to be a baseball player. That was the dream.”
But after participating in a showcase in Florida where promising young athletes were invited to show off their skills in front of Major League Baseball scouts, “it just didn’t work out,” he admits.
How did Russell manage to steer from baseball toward the culinary arts? Surprisingly, it was by way of pursuing a degree in finance at the University of British Columbia at the age of 18.
“You start off in the finance world when you don’t know what to do with your life,” he says. “If you don’t really know what you want to do, at least know how to build a business.”
© Photos by Ezra Soiferman
Right from his first year of university, Russell gravitated toward restaurant kitchens in search of work in Vancouver.
Quickly snagging a part-time job at the family-owned Earls, Russell began juggling a promising career and his demanding school work. It became clear to him that he wasn’t all that eager to finish his studies at UBC. He left the program in the middle of his second year and ventured headlong into the burgeoning Vancouver food scene.
“You start cooking part time to pay rent and discover you really, really like it,” he says. “You stop going to university and start cooking full time, and you end up falling deeper and deeper in love.”
Emboldened by his new passion for food and his desire to carve out a place for himself in the culinary world, Russell created his own curriculum.
“When I stopped going to university, I had a job and kept cooking 70 to 80 hours a week. I put down all my textbooks and picked up books on cooking — the science of cooking, the lure of cooking, the history of cooking.
“When your brain is used to thousands of words a day, it desires that continuously.”
After four years cooking in Vancouver restaurants, Russell took a prestigious job as a personal chef at the posh Baraka Point resort in the British Virgin Islands for a year, followed by a year of travel throughout Spain.
Once those adventures came to an end, he gave careful consideration to where he should restart his career. Our fair city was his “first-round draft pick” for planting his culinary seeds and a shot at cultivating a path toward having his very own restaurant.
“Montreal is the best food city in North America,” he says. “A city that had a defining gastronomy when I was deciding where to go next. The city has amazing people that love to go out and give everybody a chance to show what they’ve got.”
Like all kitchen careers, Russell’s has been turbulent at times, spanning a spectrum of emotions and notable Montreal establishments. Coming up the ranks, he worked with chef Martin Juneau at Pastaga and at the celebrated but now closed Restaurant Van Horne. It was while working at La Salle à Manger (also closed) with esteemed chef Samuel Pinard that Russell felt the most influenced, inspired and part of something much greater than just the daily mechanics of a busy kitchen.
“You can say you worked here and worked there, but what has influenced me more is not just where I worked — it’s more about the people I worked with.”
Nostalgically, he adds: “Some of the best chefs in the city, and sous-chefs, were there at the same time with me. That became my family in Montreal.
“Chef Sam Pinard is one of the most generous chefs I have ever worked for. The minute he saw you knew what you were doing, he basically said, ‘Show me what you can do.’ ”
© Photos by Ezra Soiferman
With substantial experience under his belt and the encouragement of multiple influencers, Russell was ready to open his own restaurant. Nestled in an otherworldly location in a former Sunday school and rectory behind Église St-Joseph in Little Burgundy, Candide opened in late 2015. Praise from both diners and critics followed.
With a desire to give a gastronomic experience one “would not soon forget,” Russell designed a set menu around local ingredients, with a strict adherence to using only seasonal offerings.
“The reason we use local ingredients is because it just makes sense,” he says. “Why would I go to the other side of the world to get something when there is so much food grown, produced and raised around us?”
No wonder Russell selected a day of forest foraging in the Laurentians for his Beyond the Plate adventure.
We set out for the woods with nothing but a few slices of Candide’s homemade sourdough bread, some hand-churned butter, a knife and some matches. The surroundings we stumbled upon just off a quiet road in Labelle were a glimpse of nature at its best as we made our way through raw, unspoiled forest.
Fiddleheads, sumac blossoms and dandelion stems were just a few of the edible gifts we encountered. When we stopped for a moment to catch our breath, Russell had a look of sheer contentment.
One might think that a young chef who has experienced his share of bumps on the road could have felt discouraged at times with his choice of career and the roller-coaster ride it entails. But as I’ve learned from Russell and other chefs featured in this column, each one has a mission, and a passion for food and people, that helps them overcome all the hurdles in their way.
Like Voltaire’s Candide, who starts his journey vulnerable to the elements and encounters upheavals, Russell has arrived intact and stronger for it. Similar to the garden in Voltaire’s novel, with life’s lessons you can discard the difficulties along the way or gather them like seeds, cultivating your own garden through knowledge.
As Russell eloquently puts it: “You spend a whole lot of time building and constructing things so that you can arrive at a place where you are happy with what you’ve built. You form your own destiny. Everyone has to plant their own garden, to reap their own rewards.”
This essay originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette on July 4, 2018